Time to take cancer, treatment seriously

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on science and technology, environment, forest and climate change has submitted a report that merits serious attention and swift action. Describing cancercare infrastructure in the country as “highly inadequate,” the report provides useful insights into what ails our existing treatment facilities. It also makes recommendations that could reduce the number of fatalities stemming from this disease. The panel report suggests the adoption of a pan-India ‘hub and spokes’ model similar to the one used by the Tata Memorial Centre (TMC) in Mumbai which is the country’s premier institution for research and treatment of cancer. ‘Spokes’, which are treatment centres that have the facilities to tackle common and less complex cancers, will be connected to a larger hospital or hub that has the capacity to treat rare cancers and implement complicated treatment protocols. A hub-and-spokes structure for cancer hospitals in the country will help patients, their families as well as healthcare professionals. Taking care of a cancer patient is a long-term responsibility. Treatment disrupts lives and livelihoods of the patient as well as care-givers. Those in small towns and rural areas have to travel long distances to access hospitals. A hub-and-spoke model will decentralise cancercare and ease access of treatment especially relating to common and easily treatable cancers.

The report points out that the lack of cancer treatment facilities is directly related to a higher incidence of cancer. India’s North-East, for instance, is poorly served by cancercare facilities. The incidence of cancer in this region is reportedly much higher than the national average. It is important that India takes cancer and its treatment more seriously. According to health ministry figures, around 1.6 million new cancer cases are reported annually. Still, the country has just 62 dedicated cancercare centres. This is a disease that inflicts heavy costs. In addition to a possible loss of life, cancer often entails financial costs. Treatment is extremely expensive and is beyond the reach of most people. Many patients stop treatment as they cannot afford it. Another area in which cancer infrastructure is inadequate relates to the availability of doctors. The country has 1,250 oncologists only when there is a demand for 7,300 of them. There are instances where expensive diagnostic infrastructure in government hospitals lies unused and gathering dust.

Most cancers are curable today. Improving public awareness on accessing early treatment is important. Putting medicine and treatment within the financial and physical reach of all Indians is a goal that can reduce fatalities and complications. The recent expansion in the scope of cancer coverage under the Ayushman Bharat scheme is a step in the right direction. But more needs to be done.

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